2016 Interdisciplinary Research Award

Emily Abel, Human Development and Family Studies

Sleep and daytime behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorder 

The 2016 Interdisciplinary Research Award is possible due to the generosity of Center for Families’ donors Dr. Travis Dorsch and Dr. Breanna Studenka.

Sleep problems are common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and previous research suggests that poor sleep worsens challenging daytime behaviors and ASD severity (e.g., repetitive behavior). However, there are no published studies of sleep and daytime behavior in center-based ABA programs for children with ASD, where clinicians are often faced with problematic daytime behaviors that may reflect poor sleep. Through this project, Abel aims to build on previous research by using more comprehensive assessments of sleep (via actigraphy) and behavior (via repeated daily observations) in the context of early treatment. The overarching goal of this research is to better understand relations between sleep and behavior in children with ASD receiving early intensive behavioral treatment (i.e., Applied Behavior Analysis; ABA).

Ms. Abel’s project is mentored by Dr. A. J. Schwichtenberg (HDFS), Dr. Matthew Brodhead (EDST), and Dr. Sharon Christ (HDFS).

The study is ongoing and will include approximately 50 children from local ABA centers providing full-time services to children with an ASD diagnosis. Each child’s sleep will be measured for five consecutive 24-hour periods. Daytime behaviors (aggression, self-injury, non-compliance, negative affect, and repetitive behavior) will also be directly observed during the five consecutive days that the child wears the sleep sensor. Finally, parents will report on various aspects of their child’s sleep, development, adaptive behavior, and medical history. Abel is thrilled to conduct this research, as exploring the influence of sleep on challenging behavior will directly inform clinical practice, with the overall goal of improving sleep and treatment outcomes for children with ASD. Specifically, the results of this study will be helpful in understanding the role of sleep in children’s behavior and designing more successful interventions for ASD (including sleep interventions that may also improve daytime challenging behavior).

Special Thanks
Ms. Abel would like to thank Dr. Travis Dorsch and Dr. Breanna Studenka for this additional support, and the Cornerstone Autism Center, the Indiana Applied Behavior Analysis Academy, and Little Star Center for their constant support and integral role in both recruitment and data collection. As well as the children and families who make this research possible and continue to inspire my educational and professional endeavors.

Ms. Abel  joined the Department of Human Development and Family studies at Purdue in the fall of 2014 after receiving my B.S. in Psychology. Her undergraduate training emphasized both developmental science and clinical research, and I developed skills in the areas of autism intervention (e.g., home-based programming), family processes, and perceptions of children with disabilities. Her passion for autism research stemmed from providing in-home programming for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and continued to grow as she observed each child’s unique developmental trajectory. Upon graduation, she looks to continue helping families, while also conducting innovative, interdisciplinary research and expanding my knowledge of ASD.